Big Henry has always attracted attention. Often it is just the passing enquiry, a remark or a walk around by admirers in a superstore parking area. Other times people are very keen to learn more....we have been followed sometimes for miles for a photo, but this was to be the first time that we were actually stopped by another vehicle.
The two gentlemen admirers were just so pleased to see the vehicle of their dreams in the flesh (having only ever seen it on the TV or photos on the internet). We chatted for a while comparing travel expereinces until one of them happened to mention to The Blonde that the black bears in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park were currently very active....should we go? It was only a small 350 mile diversion to the east....so, yes....of course we just have to go.
It proved to be a very, very long day of driving but the scenery was superb. Route 33 was also quite a challenging drive....not many straight pieces of road and some serious ups and downs. We arrived very late at the entrance to the park at Swift Gap.....there was no room at the inn. All campgrounds were fully booked for the weekend....yep, I know, what were we thinking arriving late on a Saturday to one of the most visited parks in the whole of the USA only 75 miles west of Washington D.C. on Labor Day weekend?! A quick about turn and back down into Swift Gap...the first campground we found and pulled straight in....they had one space left.
One of the neighbours at Swift Gap Campground
The minute we pulled into our space we realised this was going to be a campground like no other we had been on before. It was such a contrast of vehicles in location. From monster coaches to the semi-permanent small trailers where people had taken up residence and set out their stall...of rubbish! As I hooked us up to power I was greeted by one of our new neighbours...swigging gently from a very large bottle of Jack Daniels....he was of course "interested" in Big Henry. It was the longest hookup in history and 35 minutes later I was still trying to remove myself from the offer of yet another "slug" of the now new bottle of JD that had been lurking in the makeshift drinks cabinet on the Igloo box on the front of his trailer. The Blonde had heard a PA system starting up....hmmmmm....she went to investigate. It was going to be karaoke night....the Virginia Travelling Karaoke Show had come to Swift Gap Campground and tonight we were to be entertained by the crew with their full repertoire of over 3,000 karaoke cd's to choose from!! Oh my.....I said....! It was a very long night.
Even if you wanted to participate....how could you possibly choose!
Somehow we managed to survive Swift Gap....and Sunday morning we made an early exit and chased up to the park entrance in search of a national park campground for the next few nights to use as a base to explore and find bears.
Shenandoah National Park is a national park which encompasses part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The park is long and narrow, with the broad Shenandoah River and Valley on the west side, and the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont on the east. It has quite a history and we were particularly surprised to learn that in the early 1930s, the National Park Service began planning the park facilities and envisioned separate provisions for blacks and whites. At that time, in Jim Crow Virginia, racial segregation was still the order of the day. In its transfer of the parkland to the federal government, Virginia initially attempted to ban African Americans entirely from the park. By the 1930s, there were several concessions operated by private firms within the area that would become the park, some going back to the late 19th century. These early private facilities at Skyland Resort, Panorama Resort, and Swift Run Gap were operated only for whites. By 1937, the Park Service accepted a bid from Virginia Sky-Line Company to take over the existing facilities and add new lodges, cabins, and other amenities, including Big Meadows Lodge. Under their plan, all the sites in the parks, save one, were for "whites only".
We pulled into Big Meadows Campground just after 9am. The place and Byrd Visitor Center were a veritable hive of activity...we secured a campsite spot and then went to explore. The visitor center was very busy but eventually we managed to talk to a very helpful volunteer who gave us some good hike maps and information on what was best for us to achieve in the 4 to 5 days we planned to stay in the park.
An afternoon to plan and relax with Big Henry
Back at base we decided on a planning and rest day....I biked back to the visitor center, still busy, and sat down to use their wifi and get the Sunday Times...forget it! The speed was so slow. Back at base we planned our hikes for the next few days and then had an early night.
The Blonde with a bronze statue of a CCC worker outside Byrd Visitor Center
From the back of the campground the following morning we jumped on to the Lewis Falls Trail that took us through to Fishers Gap Overlook and then on to the Rose River Falls Loop Trail. We had been informed that there had been a number of bear sightings on this trail and close to the river. It was a long steep descent to the bottom of the valley followed by of course the long climb back up again....we had been enjoying the beautiful wooded walkway and the very pretty river when we turned a corner to see our first black bear. He was foraging by the river bank, turning over stones and looking for grubs....he actually looked very thin and his furcoat was not in good order. We did subsequently learn that there had been a major fire in the south of the park earlier in the year and that this had forced many black bears north into this particular area, so there was competition for food...and it showed. We were happy to sit quietly for 5 minutes and watch him forage, but then another couple came along and the bear became a bit agitated...he gave up his search along the riverbank and headed up the wooded slope on the other side of the river and simply disappeared into the undergrowth. We completed the walk by the falls which was now busy and our 6 mile hike, pleased that we had seen at least one bear and enjoyed some very pretty valley scenes.
Our first black bear in Shenandoah....not exactly a prime example of the species.
The following morning we were up before daylight and off to Old Rag Lookout to photograph the sunrise. This point had been recommended to us by one of the rangers. The sun rose very quickly and our photos by no way do real justice to the beautiful scene that lit up right in front of us...now we know why they are called the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Sunrise from Old Rag Lookout.
We backtracked a little and then arrived at Hawksbill Trailhead where we parked Big Henry and set off on the loop trail to the highest point in the park. It was still early and quite cool as the sun had not yet penetrated the canopy above us. After a fairly steep climb of approximately 40 minutes we arrive at the lookout point, at 4,051 feet. It was very windy....coupled with it still being early, it was also very chilly. We took some photos, admired the sun dial and the bronze plaque that featured the relevant high points we could see around us as we looked down and over the Shenandoah Valley. But it really was too cold and windy to stick around so we continued on the loop track.
The Blonde and the view from Hawksbill Summit.
Back with Big Henry we mozied along Skyline Drive passing lots and lots of overlooks on both sides of the road. A quick look at Skyland which had been a resort back in the early 1900’s before the National Park was opened. Now it’s a rather empty, soul-less collection of cabins and features the original Massanutten Lodge. Designed by architect Victor E. Mindeleff and built in 1911 for Addie Hunter, a Washington DC divorcee who later married Skyland developer George Pollock, it’s a two room cottage with a view of the Shenandoah Valley 3600 feet below. It was a very modern construction at the time featuring gas lights, electricity, and running water. Guests participated in “elaborate balls, costume parties, teas, jousts and tournaments, musicales, pageants, and bonfires.” It opens for two hours every day and is worth a visit.
The EarthRoamers....happy to be hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
We passed through Marys Rock Tunnel (just south of Thornton Gap entrance from Route 211) which is only 12'8" high. Phew - only 8 inches to spare! It is one of the points where you can enter or exit the drive. After this point you are committed to the end! We drove on to Matthews Arm Campground, descending to 2,700 feet. The campground was empty! We had over 150 sites to choose from! We picked out a really nice spot got lunch prepared and then another large male black bear walks through our camp....climbs up an oak tree less than 50 meters from us and starts to gorge on the nuts....unfortunately it was really hard to get a clear shot of him as he was feeding but it was still a very cool experience.
Matthews Arm Campground the day after Labor Day Weekend....just us and.....
...our tree climbing black bear.
The main reason for our moving to Matthews Arm was that we could easily access the Applachian Trail from this campground and because on the Elkwallow Creek part of the trail was a store renowned for selling blackberry ice cream. What could be better than a beautiful wooded hike with views down and over the Shenendoah Valley on the Appalachian Trail one of the world's great long distance hiking trails at over 2,200 miles long and then to end that 7 mile hike by consuming a memorable home made ice cream....well....to just add to the whole experience we came across a black bear mum and her two cubs as well. Magical....the cubs were quite curious about us, but mum was not so sure, so we decided it best not too get too close...and then...we were treated to an area in one of the valleys which was full of Swallowtail butterflies.
The Blonde and The Hat on The Appalachian Trail...notice The Hat now featuring the new Appalachian Trail badge.
Stunningly beautiful Swallowtail basking in the sunlight.
Shenandoah National Park is another gem in the long list of amazing National Parks in the United States...if you have never been and you are in the area...GO! Probably best to visit outside of major holiday times and weekends if you want to truly appreciate the wilderness here...and you need at least 3 days to truly experience what it has to offer. For most visitors it is a case of just driving the Skyline Drive..with a few lookout stops this can be achieved in 3 to 4 hours...but you will miss so much.